Opening the Word: Christ’s ‘constellation’

“The figure of Peter is an impossibility made possible only by the will of the One who created him,” wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar in “The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church” (Ignatius Press, $24.95). Von Balthasar’s book is an often challenging work, but it helped me many years ago to understand more deeply and correctly the person of Peter and the Petrine office. One theme of the book is the rich, intertwined communion within what von Balthasar calls the “Christological constellation” — the group of people who were closest to Jesus and whose charisms, offices and influence continue today in the Church.

At the heart of this constellation is Mary, because she is at the “center of the event of the Incarnation.” But Peter and the Twelve are essential as well. The Petrine office “is participation in Christ’s divine-human authority in the Church.” The Church is established on the foundation of the Apostles, notably Peter, the Rock.

This unique identification of Peter is from the Gospel of Matthew, which describes the dramatic conversation in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked two questions of the Apostles: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “But who do you say that I am?” The first question is general, while the second focuses on those who have been disciples of Christ. And when Peter confesses that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God,” his master focuses solely on him. “Even though the question was posed to the all the disciples,” Catholic author and translator Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis notes, “only Peter answered — and answered profoundly. ... Here, it seems, is the deepest origin of Peter as source of visible ecclesial unity: that, by divine inspiration and election, he utters the deepest truth concerning Christ and that the other apostles recognize their own faith and voice in his.”

The apostle Paul looked to Peter for guidance after his stunning conversion on the road to Damascus, eventually spending 15 days with the head apostle (Gal 1:18). The two men were very different, but they were both strong-willed, driven, intense and, most importantly, fully committed to the Gospel.

After Jesus himself, Peter and Paul are the two men who dominate the New Testament and whose leadership set the course for the early Church. The Acts of the Apostles, an account written by the evangelist Luke of key events in the early Church, is essentially divided between what might be called the “acts of Peter” (chapters 1-12) and the “acts of Paul” (chapters 13-28).

Paul, notes von Balthasar, was “the most dynamic apostle,” a brilliant thinker who “embodies the Catholic unity in the midst of diversity.” In the words of Paul: “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the Gospel, so that I too may have a share in it” (1 Cor 9:22-23). Yet Paul’s ministry was never contrary to the Petrine office, the authority of the Church. To the contrary, Paul was scornful of division, as he made so clear to the Corinthians: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13).

Both were flawed; both were transformed by Christ. Both were martyred. Both, according to tradition, died in Rome. And both are essential witnesses in the constellation surrounding the Christ, pointing always to him.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.